Paul Smeaton reports for LifeSiteNews — A Northern Ireland government body has backtracked and apologized after writing to churches and asking them to state whether or not they will celebrate same-sex “weddings” while threatening that they would lose their status as marriage officiants for all weddings if they did not reply in less within a month.
The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019, the same piece of legislation that introduced new abortion laws into the region, has also legalized same-sex “marriage,” effective from January 13 of this year.
Same-sex “marriage” has been legal in the rest of the UK since 2013, but until this year had not been imposed on Northern Ireland.
And a number of Nothern Ireland churches recently received a letter from General Register Office for Northern Ireland (GRO) asking them to complete a form detailing whether would officiate only weddings between people of the opposite sex or whether they would also officiate at so-called same-sex “weddings.”
“Although your church has officiants currently registered with the General Register Office to carry out opposite-sex marriages, I am writing to you so that we may update the officiant database with your church’s preferences for performing all types of marriages,” the July 17 letter stated.
The form also asked churches who agree to offer same-sex “weddings” to list the names and details of any of their officiants who would not carry out same-sex “marriage” ceremonies, but would continue to carry out opposite-sex marriage ceremonies.
“If we do not receive any response by this date, it will be assumed that you and other members of the church no longer wish to be registered as officiants for any type of marriage,” the letter continued.
“We will cancel the registrations on the officiant database accordingly, and you will not be able to carry out any marriage ceremonies in Northern Ireland.”
A number of churches, reportedly concerned by the intimidating tone and contents of the letter, contacted The Christian Institute for their help in responding to the letter.
Christian Institute’s in-house solicitor, Sam Webster, responded with a letter to the GRO offices in Belfast, demanding an explanation.
“I would be grateful if you would kindly explain by return why you are writing to religious bodies threatening to cancel their existing registrations if they do not complete and return the form by August,” Webster wrote.
“Apart from the apparent lack of any legal basis for your letter, you must be aware that in this holiday season there is a real risk that your letter will go unnoticed by many recipients.”
The GRO has now issued a public statement saying that “(n)o officiants will be removed from the register and any religious bodies wishing to perform same-sex marriages must opt in by completing the form issued with the letter.”
And The Christian Institute reports that they have received an apology from the GRO, which said “it was not and is not the intention to cancel registration of officiants” and that the GRO is in the process of writing to all churches to highlight the mistake.
“We are currently writing to all churches to highlight the mistake and apologise unreservedly for this error,” the new letter states.
“This is important as the GRO sets about reassuring places of worship that they can continue to carry out weddings – the union of one man and one woman – and do not need to re-register in order to ‘opt out’ of conducting same-sex weddings,” Simon Calvert, deputy director for public affairs at The Christian Institute, said of the GRO’s U-turn.
“It was a crass way to handle an issue that is highly controversial amongst the churches, the vast majority of which believe as a matter of deep doctrinal conviction that marriage is the union of one man and one woman,” Calvert continued.
“The number likely to opt in is very small. In England, for example, 22,500 non-Anglican places of worship are registered for weddings and only 250 of those are registered for same-sex weddings.”
Earlier this year, Northern Ireland politician and Trade Union Voice leader Jim Allister pointed out that the new law legalizing same-sex “marriage” in the region will not allow civil registrars, hoteliers, florists, and wedding photographers to refuse their services for homosexual “weddings.”
Allister noted that paragraph 25 of the public consultation then in process regarding the new law “explicitly states that the protections afforded to churches and ministers of religion will not apply to registrars.”
“There is no space for anyone to express an opinion on this in the response form,” Allister said. “Why does the NIO choose to ignore this serious issue which impacts on the civil, religious, human and employment rights of registrars?”
“Here we have a situation where people have taken up the position of registrars under one set of conditions and now those conditions have been radically changed,” Allister continued. “If, as is often claimed, same-sex marriage was really about rights, then this issue would have been addressed.”
Allister has also pointed out that paragraph 50 of the consultation states that the legal right to refuse to be involved with such ceremonies “will not apply to service providers that are not religious bodies, such as hoteliers, wedding photographers(,) and florists.”
Allister said that people who refused to provide services for same-sex “marriages” would be stripped of legal protection.
“This is intolerable and wrong, but the NIO doesn’t want to know,” he concluded.
The Northern Ireland Office (NIO), the UK government department responsible for Northern Ireland affairs, responded to Allister’s comments, stating, “Civil marriages and partnerships are secular in Northern Ireland and Registrars cannot discriminate against couples on the basis of sexual orientation.”
“Service providers are also required to comply with the relevant equality laws in Northern Ireland,” the statement continued.
“Registrars and service providers are treated in the same way in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK. We will make further regulations once we have considered all of the responses to the consultations.”
In 2018, a Christian family-owned bakery in Northern Ireland was found by the UK Supreme Court to be not guilty of discriminating against an LGBT activist declining to bake a cake supporting same-sex “marriage.”
The judges ruled in that case that “the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and to freedom of expression were clearly engaged by this case” and that “they include the right not to be obliged to manifest beliefs one does not hold.”